Neil Belanger (far right) receiving the proclamation of Indigenous Disability Awareness Month from former minister Shane Simpson (far left) and premier John Horgan
November 9th, 2021
November is Indigenous Disability Awareness Month. Not only is this a time to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous persons with disabilities, it's an opportunity to raise awareness, create partnerships, and break down barriers which Indigenous persons face.
We spoke with Neil Belanger, CEO of the BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society (BCANDS), about Indigenous Disability Awareness Month and the unique challenges faced by Indigenous persons with disabilities.
What makes the disability experience different for Indigenous persons? Neil: Look at the attitudes toward Indigenous peoples, look at all the anti-Indigenous discrimination.
It impacts their ability to access disability and health services, and knowing they're going to face discrimination because of their ancestry prevents many Indigenous persons from even thinking about engaging these services.
Poverty's a big issue for many Canadians, but it's especially bad for Indigenous persons. Indigenous people face systemic poverty across Canada, with 80 percent having median incomes under the poverty line.
80 percent of Indigenous people have a median income under the poverty line
On top of all that, the rate of disability is also higher in the Indigenous community. It's over 30 percent compared to about 20 percent for the non-Indigenous population.
So you have a greater need in Indigenous communities, yet there's less support in place.
How do we improve those outcomes and correct the lack of support? Neil: It all goes back to attitudes and anti-Indigenous discrimination. These impact access to housing, employment, services, and really all the things everyone needs to survive. Right now, there's not enough collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. Indigenous disability is very underprioritized in Canada, even in major disability organizations. We have big groups, local and national, that have hardly ever worked with Indigenous peoples or reached out to them.
The BCANDS logo (photo: BCANDS)
There must be constant engagement with Indigenous communities. It's not good enough to just send an email every now and then, or merely say you're committed. You've got to consistently act the part and be genuine about creating relationships.
There must be constant engagement with Indigenous communities. It's not good enough just to send an email every now and then.
One more thing I want to add is that there needs to be a better way of ensuring that people know what's out there - we can have the best resources and supports in the world, but if no one knows about them they're irrelevant.
That's why awareness raising is so important.
How well has BC been doing? Neil: BC's been progressive, but we need to expand on that. When when we look at the federal disability inclusion action plan, and the financial component - the Canada Disability Benefit - it must be available to everyone on disability, federal or provincial.
We want the provincial government to exempt this benefit so there are no clawbacks, and disability rates in general need to increase.
Then people wouldn't have to worry so much about whether they'll be able to eat tonight or pay rent this month. We have to bring people out of poverty so they can thrive.
We have to bring people out of poverty so they can thrive
More also has to be done with employers, both on the disability side and the Indigenous side, because employers are very reluctant to hire Indigenous people with disabilities.
For one thing, they lack information and often have misconceptions which make them nervous about providing accommodations, and there's still discrimination against Indigenous persons and persons with disabilities.
Changing those attitudes requires education, both of employers and co-workers, so that Indigenous persons with disabilities who are employed have a healthy, supportive work environment; no one wants to work if they aren't welcomed.
What are some valuable resources in BC for Indigenous persons with disabilities?
Neil: There are friendship centers across BC, and we work closely with them, and there are also non-Indigenous we work with that can be a great help to people, such as Disability Alliance BC, PLAN, and SPARC BC.
And of course our doors are always open to people who need help - that's what we do.
November is Indigenous Disability Awareness Month - tell us about that Neil: We created Indigenous Disability Awareness Month in 2015, so this year's the 7th anniversary. It's been officially proclaimed in BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, as well as 6 capitol cities.
It's a time to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous persons, and also to raise awareness so we can break down barriers and build partnerships.
Disability impacts everyone, Indigenous or not. Everyone's looking to belong and we all have a right to belong, so let's come together and get things moving.
To learn more about BCANDS and Indigenous Disability Awareness Month, visit their website
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!